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Originally published Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 7:02 PM

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Book review

'Where Good Ideas Come From': Steven Johnson asks why great ideas arise where they do

Steven Johnson's new book, "Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation," explores why some places are hotbeds for new ideas, and others aren't. Johnson discusses his book Wednesday at the Barnes & Noble in Seattle's University Village shopping center and Thursday at a Words & Wine event at Seattle's Sorrento Hotel.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Steven Johnson

The author of "Where Good Ideas Come From" will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Barnes & Noble in the University Village Shopping Center; free (206-517-4107 or store-locator.barnesandnoble.com/store/2573). He will also appear at 7 p.m. Thursday at Seattle's Sorrento Hotel. Wines, appetizers and a copy of "Where Good Ideas Come From" are included in the $50 per person cost (206-632-2419 or www.kimricketts.com).

'Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation'

by Steven Johnson

Riverhead, 326 pp., $26.95

Good ideas are hatched in individual human minds, which might be anywhere on the planet. But they are not just anywhere. They are more likely to be in some sorts of places than others. Why is it, as Steven Johnson writes, that some environments are intellectual deserts and others seem to breed ideas like tadpoles in a pond?

In nature, the same question arises about the variety of life forms. Johnson begins with young Charles Darwin on an atoll awash with life, and wondering: Why is this place so much richer in life than the sea around it? In his book, "Where Good Ideas Come From," Johnson is looking for the new ideas in our civilization and seeking to explain why they arise where they do.

He recalls the stories of various innovators, including subjects of his earlier books: Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen ("The Invention of Air"), and John Snow, who discovered how to stop the spread of cholera ("The Ghost Map").

Good ideas don't hatch fully formed, like Athena out of the skull of Zeus. Priestley didn't discover oxygen that way, nor did Snow instantly crack the mystery of cholera. And though Darwin supposedly hit on the theory of natural selection while reading the famous book on population by Thomas Malthus, a look at Darwin's diaries shows that the "aha" moment was one step in many. The real story of innovation, writes Johnson, is "the slow hunch," nurtured like a backyard tomato plant.

How to nurture a hunch? First, write it down. Darwin did that. Talk to other people about it. Others can complete your idea. Priestley incubated his hunches in the cosmopolitan gabble of 18th century London coffee shops. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were part of the Homebrew Computer Club. "The most productive tool for generating good ideas," writes Johnson, is "a circle of humans sitting around a table, talking shop."

Another way is to break your routine. Go fishing. Soak in the tub. Go for a walk. Johnson writes, "The history of innovation is replete with stories of good ideas that occurred to people while they were out on a stroll."

In the final part of his book, Johnson argues against the corporate model of proprietary research protected by patents and secrecy. An open, academic model, in which information flows through an open network, works better. Companies that can tap into that world, or simulate it internally, will do better.

Johnson's own interest stops him short of saying patents and copyrights should be thrown out altogether. People who create intellectual property, including books like this, need to be paid — an argument, writes Johnson, "I am more than sympathetic toward." No doubt that goes also for his publisher, Riverhead Books, which is owned by Penguin, which is owned by Pearson, a great corporation based in London.

Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times

editorial writer

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